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Families in FL feel forgotten

With much of the nation's attention focused on Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts on the Gulf Coast, hundreds of Florida families still trying to recover from Hurricane Wilma feel forgotten, according to disaster responders.

BY HEATHER MOYER | CLEWISTON, Fla. | March 16, 2007

With much of the nation's attention focused on Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts on the Gulf Coast, hundreds of Florida families still trying to recover from Hurricane Wilma feel forgotten, according to disaster responders.

"It's very difficult for people to realize that (we still need help)," said Sheri Taylor, director of the Palm Beach County Disaster Recovery Coalition (PBCDRC). "We are still getting calls asking for help."

Recovery efforts from Hurricane Wilma that hit in October 2005 were slow to get under way "because the emphasis for everybody was on the grave disaster in New Orleans, Louisiana and Mississippi - and we understand that," said Richard Heers, executive director of Collier County's Immokalee Helping Our People in Emergency (IHOPE). "Initially there was not a great response. That's why it's taken so long."

Long-term recovery agencies in more than 10 South Florida counties are still helping families in need of home repairs or rebuilds.

"We have about 200 cases left from the original 600 we started more than a year ago," said Trish Adams, director of Community Rebuilding Ecumenical Workforce (CREW) in Hendry and Glades counties. "We can see the end, but we've probably taken in 20 cases in the past week."

Adams said most of those calls were from families still living in Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers. FEMA is scheduled to remove the trailers at the end of April, and Adams said a push was on to repair or rebuild the families' original homes.

Some good news came at the end of February for nine agencies addressing Wilma needs. The Volunteer Florida Foundation announced grants totaling $286,350 for long-term recovery organizations "that will work as case managers in helping 2005 Hurricane Wilma survivors move from FEMA temporary housing to permanent housing."

Agencies that received the grants cover Brevard, Broward, Collier, Glades, Hendry, Martin, Monroe, Okeechobee, Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties. A foundation spokesman estimated that 800 hurricane-affected families were still living in FEMA trailers.

CREW was one of the grant recipients. Adams said the funds will help up to 15 families whose homes could not be repaired.

She said that while help from the foundation was appreciated, more assistance was needed.

"While we've been pretty successful in recruiting volunteers, material and financial donations are our biggest needs," she said.

For families being forced out of FEMA trailers, Adams said the rental situation around Glades and Hendry counties was less than affordable.

"First of all, rental property around here is scarce," she said. "When the trailers get pulled, not only will they have financial problems finding an affordable place, but there's also just very little rental property to begin with. Making minimum wage and living around here is almost impossible."

A similar situation exists just south of Hendry and Glades counties.

"We just had the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee come here in January to do a needs assessment," said IHOPE's Heers. "They found 176 additional homes that needed major and minor remodeling or demolition and replacement. They recommended that 14 be totally rebuilt."

IHOPE is working on more than 300 cases for affected families.

"We had just been focusing on the Immokalee area in rural northeast Collier County," he said. "It's a very high poverty area with a large migrant population of about 30,000 to 40,000 people. Many only speak Spanish or Haitian Creole."

IHOPE recently received a grant from the Volunteer Florida Foundation and permission to manage the 24 FEMA trailers in the county.

"We will do case management on each family in a trailer, then buy the trailers for cheap," Heers said. "From there, we'll resell the trailers to the family for cheap and replace some of them with regular mobile homes."

The FEMA trailers meet 2004 Miami hurricane standards, he noted. IHOPE's coalition members were continuing to seek funding for more home repairs and rebuilds.

Volunteers have been helping families, and Heers said one team will return in late March to help set up former FEMA trailers and new trailers for some families. He also credited funding and volunteers from Lutheran Services Florida (LSF), the United Methodist Committee on Relief and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance for getting some of the homes back in shape.

The need for skilled volunteers remains, he said, especially those who can put up drywall, hang cabinets and do roof work. Residents in Collier County also must deal with a lack of affordable housing.

Stress from the longevity of the recovery was wearing on many families, Heers said, noting that a local mental health agency has taken numerous referrals for IHOPE's cases. LSF was also addressing mental health needs for adults and children and was providing day camps for affected children, he said.

In Palm Beach County, families affected by Wilma face the same mental health situation, according to Taylor of PBCDRC.

"Nerves are wearing thin," she said. "Some families are just living in their damaged dwellings."

Taylor said her agency was handling the cases of about 84 families affected by the hurricane. The agency also received a grant from the foundation.

Alerting the local community to the remaining needs has been challenging, she said. Local publicity has generated telephone calls offering help but those calls quickly trickle off, Taylor said.

After one recent article by the local newspaper, the agency netted more than $2,500 in donations and people asking how they could volunteer.

"We're taking both donations and volunteers," Taylor said. "But we need teams of volunteers who can do more than weekend work. Many local folks calling in have other jobs and can only do the occasional weekend work, and that's hard to coordinate."

Volunteer teams were being sought that could spend at least a week on site. Those with roofing skills were especially in demand.

Other recipients of the Volunteer Florida Foundation Hurricane Wilma grants were the Brevard Long-Term Recovery Coalition, Volunteer Broward, Martin County's Indiantown Non-Profit Housing, Monroe County's Paradise Interfaith Network, Okeechobee County's Rebuilding Okeechobee After Disaster and St. Lucie County's Inspired Network to Achieve Community Together.

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More links on Hurricanes

More links on Disaster Recovery


Related Links:

Community Rebuilding Ecumenical Workforce

Volunteer Florida Foundation

Florida Interfaith Networking in Disaster

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